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3 Ways To Improve Your Side Characters

3 Ways To Improve Your Side Characters

Writers often neglect side characters in their novels. 

A writer’s attention usually falls on their hero or perhaps their villain. But too often, side characters get slapped on as an afterthought instead of being thought through and used as pillars and foundations, obstacles, and conflict generators. Here are three ways to improve your side characters.

1. Understand the Different Types

All characters are not made equal. While many craft teachers will talk about archetypes such as “the guide,” “the ally,” and “the obstacle,” I don’t think it’s helpful for deepening your characterisation. Instead, look at the role characters play, how often they appear on the page and the amount of depth they need — that’s a much better metric for understanding side characters.

Cameos

Cameo characters are throwaway “extras.” Think of movies and TV shows and the faceless crowd of extras who walk past the main characters. It’s the same for literature. 

What you need to know:

  • Cameos will only appear once or twice in your story.
  • They may or may not have dialogue.
  • You can describe their appearance but a label will usually suffice (e.g. “the girl with the teddy” or “the barman”).
  • They don’t need subplots or character arcs.

Real examples: The woman in the red dress from “The Matrix” movie orStan Lee’s fleeting appearances in Marvel movies.

Minor Characters

Minor characters are a step up from cameos. They appear more frequently but still don’t have much depth. They don’t leave a mark on the story or the protagonist, save for brief exchanges. 

What you need to know:

  • Minor characters will appear more than once, perhaps even up to a dozen times.
  • They don’t really affect the story or protagonist, save for transactional exchanges.
  • They’re unlikely to generate deep and meaningful conflict but they may create problems for the protagonist.
  • They need physical descriptions and something memorable about them.
  • They don’t need subplots or character arcs.

Examples: Mr. Filch from the “Harry Potter” series, Wheezy from “Toy Story 2,” and Madge from “The Hunger Games.”

Major Characters

Major characters are the big leagues of side characters. These guys leave a mark on the story and your protagonist. They take up significant page time and are usually close to or at least interacting with the protagonist in an important way.

What you need to know:

  • They will probably need or have a subplot and character arc.
  • They should represent the theme.
  • They’ll need a backstory .
  • They’ll need to be memorable, have comprehensive descriptions of their physical appearance, and the reader will need to be shown their personality.
  • You don’t need many of these characters; just a handful.

Examples: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger from the “Harry Potter” series, Trinity from the “Matrix” movies, Grandpa Joe in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Four from the “Divergent” series, the three ghosts of Christmas in “A Christmas Carol.”

2. Make Your Side Characters Represent Theme

In my book, 8 Steps to Side Characters, I dive into detail about how side characters should represent the theme. Now I know we’re word people, but I compare it to math:

“…if your book and theme were a math equation, the protagonist would be the solution. The antagonist would be the wrong answer and your side characters would be the workings out or alternative solutions you discarded along the way.”

How do you connect your side characters to the theme? 

Easy.

Let’s say your protagonist represents “love is always enough” as a theme. This means your side characters and their associated subplots and character arcs should explore a different aspect, answer, or angle on that theme. 

For example, if your protagonist was a bachelor and through your story learned to rid himself of his commitment-phobe ways because love is enough, then you have side characters represent these:

  • A woman who learns she doesn’t need a man and that loving herself is enough. 
  • A character who leaves their high-flying career after almost losing their family in an accident and realising that family love is enough.
  • A character who realizes that abusive love is not enough.
  • A character who realizes that love is not enough for them and they want more from life.

These are just examples, but if you can intertwine side character stories with the protagonist, your book will feel far more cohesive. Perhaps your protagonist blocks the side character. Or maybe they help them achieve their goal.

3. Consequences for Death

Too often, a writer will kill off a side character and there will be no repercussion. This is not good storytelling. Granted, if a cameo dies, then the consequence will be minimal. But if a major side character or even minor side character dies, then there should be big repercussions.

Repercussions can be plot consequences; for example, a complication, making the goal harder to achieve. Or, there could be an emotional consequence, be that relief, rage, sadness, or regret. 

One way to enhance the emotional consequence is to create an unexpected reaction in your character. Is your character usually gentle and harmonious? Cool, try making them rage about a death instead of crying or being sad. This surprise element both shows the complexity of human emotions — because we (as humans) rarely feel just one blanket emotion — and creates depth to the character because they’re reaction is unexpected and therefore shows a new, deeper, side to them.
Find out more about how to improve your side characters in Sacha’s latest book: 8 Steps to Side Characters: How to Craft Supporting Roles with Intention, Purpose and Power.

Meet Sacha

Sacha Black is a bestselling and competition winning author, rebel podcaster, and professional speaker. She writes educational nonfiction books for writers and fantasy books for both Young Adult and adult audiences. She lives in Cambridgeshire, England, with her wife and son. Listen to The Rebel Author Podcast or
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